- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 16, 2004

More consumers are likely to give their cell phone company the boot.

Last November people in the nation’s biggest cities gained the right to switch their wireless carrier but keep their coveted cell phone number. Consumers in the rest of the country will have the same opportunity beginning next week.

“We have every reason to think consumers in smaller markets will want to take advantage of the same opportunity that consumers in large markets have,” Federal Communications Commission spokeswoman Lauren Patrich said.

The policy — called wireless number portability — is intended to promote competition.

The FCC said last week 2.6 million of the 163 million U.S. consumers who subscribe to cell phone service have moved their telephone number between wireless carriers or moved their home number from a standard phone to a wireless device since Nov. 24, when the policy took effect in the nation’s top 100 markets.

In April alone, 612,000 consumers switched wireless carriers but kept their telephone number and 48,000 moved their home telephone number to a wireless phone.

It is not clear how many people will switch cell phone companies or dump their local phone provider when rural consumers can make the change beginning May 24, but analysts and people in the industry predict few will make a switch.

Steve Largent, the former Oklahoma congressman who is president and chief executive of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a trade association, said he expects small wireless carriers will get 20 to 40 requests a month from subscribers who want to change providers.

“People who have smaller carriers tend to be more satisfied with them than people with the big carriers,” said Charles Golvin, principal analyst with technology industry research firm Forrester Research.

That is due in large part to the absence of aggressive marketing by cell phone companies in rural areas, he said.

Rural cell-phone service is dominated by a group of about 150 companies that have from 1,000 to 500,000 subscribers each.

There is little concern they will lose customers to large carriers like Verizon Wireless, the nation’s largest wireless carrier, said Tim Raven, executive director of the Rural Cellular Association in Austin, Texas.

“We look at it as an opportunity rather than a threat,” he said. “There still are opportunities for small companies and there still are areas the larger companies don’t want to serve.”

Rural consumers who do switch carriers could face substantial delays.

The FCC has said wireless companies should complete a subscriber’s request to change carriers within 2 hours, but it could take days because some rural carriers aren’t able to transfer accounts from one company to another electronically.

Some companies will make the changes manually, said Janee Briesemeister, senior policy analyst at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.

“We expect that with manual procedures, consumers can expect to wait several days for a transfer and we expect a lot more errors,” said Ms. Briesemeister, who manages the Web site EscapeCellHell.org.

Terry Addington, president of First Cellular of Southern Illinois, said his company already has started switching some customers who want to drop their landline service at home and replace it with wireless service, but the transition took as many as 10 days.

Some consumers won’t get the chance to change carriers immediately.

About 900 small local phone companies have asked state public utility commissions throughout the country for more time before they transfer consumer accounts to another carrier. Those delays could mean it will take months before consumers in all the nation’s rural areas can dump their carrier.

“We lobbied against [the requests],” Mr. Largent said. “But to no avail.”

Just one phone company in Virginia has asked for a temporary exemption from the policy. Peoples Mutual Telephone Co., a Gretna, Va., firm with 7,900 subscribers, asked state regulators for more time before it must meet a subscriber’s request to drop service.

No phone companies in Maryland have asked for more time.

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